Betrayal and forgiveness are the themes of this complex opera: Amelia's betrayal of her husband, Renato (she is having an affair with Riccardo. governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony), and the betrayal and assassination of Riccardo by a group of conspirators. The libretto is better integrated than most of Verdi's operas written before Otello and Falstaff. It was originally about an historic incident, the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden, but Roman censors, nervous about royal assassinations, forced the absurd relocation of the opera to colonial Boston. The music is prime middle-period Verdi, less spectacular than Il Trovatore, Rigoletto or La Forza del Destino, but it is warmly, richly expressive. It requires and rewards exceptionally good voices, and it gets them in this production. Outstanding work by Muti helps make this one of the best Verdi recordings ever made. --Joe McLellan
Of all Verdi's operas Ballo is loaded with pre-echoes of Tchaikovsky, particularly his best opera Pique Dame. Verdi was the unconscious inspiration for many composers who came after him. The Northern tinta of Ballo is as vivid as it is in Macbeth, and as the tinta of the sea in Simon Boccanegra and Otello. Verdi's ability to conjure a setting in this way was on a par with the sombre atmosphere of Jean Sibelius. In other words this opera contains some of the most gorgeous music on earth.
Muti's direction is masterful. He captures the light-hearted and playful nature of the scene in Act 3 when Oscar invites Renato and Amelia to the ball. And Riccardo's death scene with those high violins in thirds; I can 'see' the snow flakes falling slowly outside the window. Ballo is filled with subtle moments like these and Muti does not rush past any of them or become overbearing as he can be in other operas.
The New Philharmonia plays beautifully and the chorus of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden is top drawer. EMI's recording is very clear, with great depth, never harsh or boomy. There is an added bonus of the Medici string quartet in the last scene as well.
The cast is unsurpassed though equaled by Solti's and Abbado's principals. I love all three of these sets and listen to them regularly.
If I had to pick one for the proverbial desert island I would have a dilemma. Muti has the most satisfying and intense Ulrica in Fiorenza Cossotto, and the best Amelia, Martina Arroyo. I love Carlo Bergonzi's Riccardo (Solti) but he interpolates the old tradition of chuckling É scherzo od é follia in Ulrica's shack. He does it with great natural agility but I prefer Plácido Domingo's less obvious humor for Muti. Domingo's later recording for Abbado is a little more straight-laced.
Piero Cappuccilli's Renato (Muti) is also my favorite, though Renato Bruson (Abbado) and the great Cornell McNeil (Solti) are equally fine. Impossible to choose ONE really.
As for Oscars, Reri Grist is quite wonderful for Muti, her tone a little more 'chirpy' than Stahlmann's (Solti). Abbado's Edita Gruberová misses the fun of the part, sounding very business-like in comparison to the others.
If you love Un ballo in Maschera you will want all three recordings, plus the Callas version, I suppose, with Antonino Votto leading the La Scala forces in a 1957 EMI monophonic recording. Callas is not in great voice, however, but Giuseppe di Steffano's Riccardo and Tito Gobbi's Renato are classic renditions. The problem with Votto's set is the impossibly squeaky Oscar and an especially stentorian Ulrica, Fedora Barbieri. She even out-blasts Abbado's Elena Obraztsova which is a feat in itself.
I know I have omitted the popular Leinsdorf recording on RCA, with Leontyne Price, Carlo Bergonzi's 2nd recording of Riccardo, Robert Merrill's fine Renato, Shirley Verrett's refined Ulrica and Reri Grist's first recording of Oscar. Frankly I don't like that recording. It sounds slipshod, even though the singers are in fine vocal condition. There is little dramatic tension to be found and it is the worst conducting I have heard from Leinsdorf, a conductor I admire. He lets the singers direct themselves for the most part and the thing turns into a vocal showcase of stars, not Un ballo in maschera.
If you are new to Verdi and this opera I highly recommend Muti's set. This EMI release has a full libretto in Italian and English, a synopsis and an interesting essay by Francis Toye. No photos or cast bios.
In fact, all the cast members are excellent. Riccardo fits Domingo like the proverbial glove and his voice was in finest estate in 1975. He doesn't quite inflect the text with Bergonzi's memorability but his rich, plangent tones caress Verdi's melodic lines and I have never heard his top notes more ringingly secure. Grist repeats her assumption of the strangely sexless Oscar with slightly less assurance than in 1966 for Leinsdorf - the voice is a little more shrill and brittle - but it is still a charming, vivacious account. A pity she isn't permitted the reprise of "Saper vorreste". Gwynne Howell contributes the best conspirator Samuel on record and Cossotto is as formidable, stentorian (it must be admitted) monochrome as Ulrica as might be expected, with terrific low notes.
Previous reviewers have complained of a certain facelessness about Arroyo's Amelia. I can't deny that she is marginally less involved than Leontyne Price and certainly pales alongside Callas (who doesn't?) but the sheer amplitude of her spinto soprano, filling Verdi's long phrases, is hugely satisfying and it is untrue to claim that she is bland. The voice per se is in some ways peerless and sounds better and better as the years pass - but I'm an inveterate devotee. Her final agonised duet with Domingo just before his stabbing with the solo violin trilling its waltz blithely and the viola groaning its warning underneath is superb. The concluding ensemble is the most effective I have heard.
I was weaned on the Leinsdorf LPs - I think it was the first opera recording I bought - but I recognise that Leinsdorf is both less subtle and less thrilling than Muti here. Votto was certainly no better than Leinsdorf but the cast includes Callas, Di Stefano, Gobbi and Barbieri at their finest, so cannot be forgotten. I would not be without either but this set represents an excellent alternative and no-one who had it as his only version need feel short-changed.
On the whole he succeeds. Domingo delivers one of his prime Verdi roles, perfeclty suited to his voice, as does Cossotto as Ulrica. Cappuccilli gives a strong but not totally memorable Renato -- he never seems to peirce to the heart of any character. If only Arroyo had been a stronger Amelia, this recording might rank at the very top, but she is rather bland and too careful in her phrasing -- the voice per se is lovely and evenly produced, even if it lacks spinto power. Callas and Leontyne Price have nothing to fear.
Overall, this set joins quite a few other first-rate Un Ballos that don't quite reach classic status. Callas and DiStefano are great, but their conductor, Votto, is a dud. Leontyne Price brings great power to the role and is almost matched by Carlo Bergonzi, but Leinsdorf is sluggish and without imagination. My favorite, when all is said and done, remains the 1985 Decca version with Pavarotti and Margaret Price. It reaches the heights when it counts, as in the Act II love scene, and Solti never forgets that Verdi is about passion and the tragic power of fate.